Class War or Culture War: Notes on Social Media and the Precariat

A discussion took place in the XG Discord the other day about the tension between technological progress and class war, in part inspired by Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire lectures. More specifically, the question asked was about the shifting nature of the working class and how we are supposed to define the “working class” as such in an information economy. My own contribution went down quite well and people asked to share it so here it is, extended and in blog form.

What I find compelling about Fisher’s writings on class in relation to technology is that he doesn’t try to conjure up any new class positions — for example, like “the precariat”.

Whilst “precariat” is a useful term, in some contexts, it is also a slippery one. It exists as if to give form to a new category of person, produced by shifts in the pomo Venn diagram of class relations; “the precariat” brings together more classic class positions and allows them to all mix together. Most generically, it covers everyone from Deliveroo drivers to freelance writers — new “working class” jobs are combined with more stereotypical but nonetheless financially precarious “middle class” jobs. But even these categorisations are misleading.

It is nonetheless a useful term for articulating how the nature of work is changing and, in that regard, it is a term that emphases the dissolution of the idea of a “job for life”, previously enjoyed by our parents and grandparents. But it is a term that also equates precarity with proletarian experience in a way that is often unhelpful.

It is sort of like how, in the UK at least, first-time students are basically understood (economically speaking, at least) as being temporarily working class. You’re probably not earning much money or paying taxes or really contributing much of anything to the economy and you are essentially receiving government benefits to have three years of study so, when it comes to how you’re seen by the state, you’re seen as working class. Of course, in reality, that’s not very useful and it imbues a false sense of hardship in the experiences of some students who might not have any money troubles at all. It is a definition useful for civil servants but one which hardly holds up against the complex and diverse material experiences of young people in this country.

I think we must similarly be wary of how a “precariat” narrative can play into the hands of a new kind of obfuscating discourse. Fisher speaks often about “the invention of the middle” in his lectures, for instance, and charts the nefarious influence of a sentiment like “we’re all middle class now” on class consciousness. In many ways, it is a paradoxical statement — he explains how it is a term that denies the existence of class through a class position. What a term like the precariat can do, if misused, is similarly cheapen working class experience and instead reduce material hardship to nothing more an inconsistent income. In truth, we can find precarious work being undertaken by people from all walks of life.

Understood in this way, our sense of who the “precariat” are resembles an erased class consciousness coming to terms with itself through new social and technological relations. Precarity nonetheless remains a poor metric to determine hardship. Precarity is, instead, an increasingly common fact of life for all of us. To associate this, via some nifty neologising, with the proletariat explicitly is reductive and unhelpful in the grand scheme of things.

Personally, I don’t think we need any new names for being working class. I don’t think that the situation now is really any more nuanced than it was in the nineteenth century. We have a tension between a proletariat class and a bourgeois class and various degrees of abstraction and alienation, in terms of our labour, that both keep us in relation with one another whilst also disconnecting us from a total view of that relation. If anything, the ultimate ideological victory of capitalism has attempted to universalise a “petite bourgeois” mindset. If the establishment wishes we were all middle class, it is in that sense — obedient, aspirational, enamoured to power.

Perhaps that’s reductive. There are certainly more kinds of experience caught up within that understanding but, more often than not, complicating this relation with new levels of detail often feels like a slippery slope towards new forms of capitalist obfuscation to me.

What further complicates a term like the “precariat” is how reliant such a class position is on technology. Can you be an Uber driver or a Deliveroo worker or any other kind of precarious worker without a smart phone? Can you work freelance in this day and age without a steady WiFi connection at home and a decent laptop? These things are hardly a sign of privilege these days, at least in urban environments, but it is nonetheless seen that way in the public unconscious. How are we to understand digital luxury when these forms of technology are essential to most job markets? They’re essential even to accessing and browsing those markets in the first place, never mind actively participating in them.

The response to this, of course, isn’t that you can’t be working class if you own an iPhone or a laptop. The question we need to ask is how are we to understand the feedback loop between these products and the means of production? Despite how some have joked in the past, I don’t think everyone owning a smart phone is equivalent to us seizing the means of production, even if we are all influencers now, in our own ways. In fact, what we are presented with is a wholly dystopian version of full automation. Because, in many respects, the social media economy is automated, but by ourselves as much as by bots and algorithms.

This is to say that, yes, our social media feeds are automated in the sense that they “work by themselves with little or no direct human control”, but we also consume the content put in front of us by these automated channels “spontaneously, without conscious thought or attention.” Call me Charlie Brooker, but we really do live in a society of drones led by drones.

What is important about this observation, however, is that we come to understand how this situation has been constructed. When we talk about technology’s place in the dissolution of class consciousness and class structures, we also need to note what Herbert Marcuse says about capitalism’s need to conjure up a “biological foundation” for itself. (This essay by Marcuse never fails to blow my mind; it is incredibly prescient.) Arguing that we need to establish “a biological foundation for socialism”, he writes:

In the affluent society, capitalism comes into its Own. The two mainsprings of its dynamic — the escalation of commodity production and productive exploitation — join and permeate all dimensions of private and public existence. The available material and intellectual resources (the potential of liberation) have so much outgrown the established institutions that only the systematic increase in waste, destruction, and management keeps the system going. The opposition which escapes suppression by the police, the courts, the representatives of the people, and the people themselves, finds expression in the diffused rebellion among the youth and the intelligentsia, and in the daily struggle of the persecuted minorities. The armed class struggle is waged outside: by the wretched of the earth who fight the affluent monster.

Travelling through time, there is perhaps a call for a certain Ludditism here. (I’m intrigued by this forthcoming book from Verso, Breaking Things at Work.) There is a sense that, if we really want to fight the affluent monster, we need to resist its utter permeation of private and public life — and what does that sound like other than social media?

However, things are more complicated than simply smashing up our iPhones. Marcuse, in conjoining Marx and Freud, notes how, in control societies, our desires can be sublated into oppressive laws and institutions. It’s not just about physical oppression anymore but psychological repression as well. For instance, following Freud, Marcuse notes how sexual desire is instituted through the sexual moralism of marriage. And yet, despite supposedly existing solely within the psyche, Marx’s negation of the negation can just as readily rear its head here as it can in the world of private property.

For Fisher, new psychic and material possibilities and potentials (along with new horrors) were introduced by the introduction of the iPhone into modern life specifically. Truly, here is an example of an affluent capitalist society coming into its own. Despite only being launched in 2008, within a decade Apple established the smart phone as an indispensable tool that we all need in order to live and communicate with one another. This produced a “biological foundation” for what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism”. Marcuse describes how this happens perfectly. Although he is speaking of moralities — he is writing in orbit of the sexual revolution — his explanation resonates more generally as well. He writes:

Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behavior, it is not only introjected — it also operates as a norm of “organic” behavior: the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and “ignores” and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society. In this way, a society constantly re-creates, this side of consciousness and ideology, patterns of behavior and aspiration as part of the “nature” of its people, and unless the revolt reaches into this “second” nature, into these ingrown patterns, social change will remain “incomplete,” even self-defeating.

This is to say that, for better or for worse, social change has to reach the level of biology if it is to stick. Moralistic fads come and go, but if we’re going to change society we have to get under our own skin. The iPhone has done this. It wasn’t just a new fashion accessory, like the Apple Watch or Google Glass — it got under our skin at that biological level and became an essential part of how we exercise that most human of activities: our sociality. In 2008, this might have sounded downright conspiratorial, but this sort of libidinal engineering is increasingly prevalent, particularly in the global South where Facebook is not just a site you can visit to scratch a social itch — it essentially is the internet; the two are synonymous. (A long read by Rahul Bhatia from 2016, on Facebook’s attempts to establish itself as an internet monopoly in India, remains essential reading on this.)

Before Facebook and Google and Apple’s more insidiously unsubtle attempts to monopolise whole nations, Fisher famously used the example of Louise Mensch on Have I Got News For You to demonstrate the teething problems present in this sort of capitalistic moralism and how we understand — or rather don’t understand — this process of biological foundation at the level of popular culture.

Mensch argues that the left’s use of the technological “fruits of capitalism” — smart phones and instant coffee — undermines any criticism they might have of capitalism. If you don’t like it, stop using all the wonders it provides! The ugly truth is that, when capitalism attempts to prolong its existence through biological foundations, the use of these sorts of wonders is less and less of a choice. Their addictive qualities aside, they become essential gateways to all manner of essential tasks and forms of labour.

And indeed, that’s precisely the point. The issue today is that smart phones are now essential tools for communication. As such, despite retaining a sense of luxury, they are in fact getting cheaper and more accessible. Tech companies want us to have them, not only because it means we are giving them money for handsets but because they can then sell our attention through adverts and whatever else. Apple and Facebook and Google and co. want to make access to their products easier and easier so that they can have more and more free labour from us. They want us to keep producing social media content so they can keep selling our attention. They need us.

Again, the most obvious response to this is to log out and unplug, but Ludditism isn’t the only option here. Indeed, whilst smart phones have provided a biological foundation to “communicative capitalism”, when detached from the driving forces of the attention economy we might find other potentials lurking here too. The main question for Marcuse in his essay on liberation, after all, is: Can we construct a biological foundation for socialism? This is a question of aesthetics and art for him. He imagines a utopian socialism wherein “men and women would fashion their reason and tend to make the process of production a process of creation”. This would lead to “the ingression of freedom into the realm of necessity”. There have long been glimmers of this other world online and in other countercultures but these forces remain curtailed by the capitalist necessity of the maximalisation of profit.

Nevertheless, the social has arguably never been more central to our lives than in the era of social media. We might argue that social media, just as Marcuse intuited, “crosses the frontier between the capitalist and the communist orbit; it is contagious because the atmosphere, the climate of the established societies, carries the virus.” That virus is the social, it is our relationships with each other, and if we can retain (and even strengthen) the joy of our new interconnectedness whilst exorcising the capitalist imperative, what are we left with?

This is an increasingly important question at the moment, I think — particularly as we remain obsessed by the inane spectacle of the so-called culture wars. But this war is driven by the attention economy. Dissensus means clicks means profit. And that has serious consequences for how we relate to one another. Indeed, this is arguably the source of our present identity politics, on both the right and the left. We are all engaged in a kind of oppression Olympics but only because we lack a shared consciousness to bond over. Instead, identity is underlined by competition, by war — a war to be won by ad revenue and flash polls.

When we think about the fact that we’re all content produces for advertising algorithms now, you might expect someone somewhere to advance some new terminologies to demonstrate the fact that we’re all somehow working class now, because we are all at the coalface of social media production. It is arguably this sentiment that feeds the culture wars, where everyone feels dwarfed before the wailing wall of anons. However, I believe we can nonetheless find new ways to build consciousness around these new modes of social relation. And the best way to do that is perhaps by socialising social media.

For example, if there is any meaningful sense in which we can seize the means of production in an information economy, it’s bringing these social media platforms into social ownership. Consider the fact that, in the UK, during the last election, the Labour Party suggested that broadband should be made into a public utility. It was laughed at at the the time but it has since become an increasingly popular policy across political lines. Why? We might cynically assume that the Tories now agree with public-owned broadband in principle because they can then treat it like every other public utility they’ve managed to get their hands on — establish a monopolised façade that they can then outsource to their mates. However, in principle, and for the left in particular, this policy opens the door for a new kind of Marxist expropriation of the expropriators, albeit coming to bear on the twenty-first century.

It is a way of taking the long road back to CyberSyn, and the establishment of a truly social(ist) media.

5 thoughts on “Class War or Culture War: Notes on Social Media and the Precariat

  1. Great post. You might be interested in Philip Mirowski’s ‘Hell Is A Truth Seen Too Late’ (if you haven’t read it already):

    In particular: the section about how ‘the residual Marxism of the Left is a big part of the problem because no one committed to Marxist categories can admit in good conscience that neoliberalism really exists,
    much less mount a serious opposition to it’ and ‘that conceptions of value
    in economics have moved on dramatically since the middle of the nineteenth century’.

  2. Speaking of iphones and their effect on the way we think, something I’ve wondered when reading Fisher (and other accelerationists) is whether their picture of the transition away from capitalism requires some degree of voluntarism at the level of social movements (the hope for a spontaneous shift in popular consciousness), or whether it’s compatible with a more strict historical materialist idea that changes in the cultural/political superstructure are generally a secondary effect of material changes, especially new technologies. For example, If you look at the lost potentials of the “post-work” ideas from the 60s that Fisher wrote about in the Acid Communism introduction, I think a lot of that was driven by optimism about the possibility of increasingly “cybernated” manufacturing that could produce an era of abundance with little need for drudge work, optimism which did have a basis in the actual technological trends and expert forecasts of the time. I could see a future scenario where advances in 3D printing and robotics allowed for fully automated flexible production, and where this could be a catalyst for much more widespread interest in possibilities like publicly owned automated factories, basic income to make sure everyone would get a share in goods which were now much cheaper to make, and other changes that would move us to a new kind of economic system. But without those technologies existing or seeming to be very near on the horizon, it seems less likely that ideas like this could be the basis for a movement with very broad appeal.

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